Sideshow Fables

Circus fiction for freaks and geeks




    Julia awoke with the sun in her face, though never truly awake, and never truly aware. Her child clung to the branches beside her, as it had done for the past hundred years. Soon the faces would come, a parade of beautiful, symmetrical smiles, and smooth chins. They came to ogle and stare at Julia and her child, the same way they had done all those years ago when she was fresh, alive...and worst of all, intelligent. No one ever thought to ask her if she was human back then. No one, that is, but Lent. And look how well that had panned out for her.

    The attendant came and wiped a dirty cloth against the glass. Julia tried to look at him, see his face. But the attendant did not look. He never did. Julia had the distinct impression she frightened him. She frightened most people. Sometimes, the women would look away in disgust. That didn't hurt her too much. What hurt was when they made fun of the baby. The young men would bend over, jut out their chins, and make ape sounds while prancing about like apes. Julia always thought someone - a kind mother in the audience perhaps - would say something. Remind them that they were mocking a child. But none ever did. Most times, the maternal women in the audience would act as if they could not see the horrible parade of mockery before them. Or sometimes, they laughed along...

    The attendant left the glass still wet and badly streaked. Julia thought to cry out, let him know he was not yet finished, but stopped herself. She had called out once before, but no one had heard her. The sound of her voice bouncing against the glass frightened her badly. It sounded too much like a tomb. Better to remain silent and let the thin strip of sunlight dry the glass slowly. Perhaps, she thought grimly, a large streak will blur my face. Or the baby. It would do the baby good to be left alone for a day or two. He has been so quiet lately. How long had it been since she had heard him coo, or babble? Almost twenty-five years. Just after Lent killed himself.

    News of Lent's suicide had drifted towards her slowly. One day, the tour guide (she could remember when they had been called "Barkers") had a slightly longer speech when passing Julia's case.

    "Julia's husband, after a second marriage to another bearded-lady 'ZENORA PASTRANA'- no relation- seems to have suffered an almost complete mental collapse. He often flew into fits of wild rage, throwing all of his worldly goods off a bridge, and finally, taking his own life..."

    The main doors opened and the first stream of onlookers waded in. Julia tried to think about the old days, how she would dance for them, or sang the old songs from her childhood on the western slopes of Mexico. She remembered the people, her people, and how they looked upon her as a blessing. She also thought of the missionaries, who at first were frightened by her resemblance to Mr. Darwin's "Missing Link". Though later they taught her to read and write, and generally civilized her in most respects. Later, when she met Mr. Darwin personally, she found him to be a pleasant, even elegant little man. Not at all like the black-hearted devil the missionaries made him out to be.

    Julia shivered at the mention of devils. Julia had met a devil. A devil that had ripped the flesh from her bones, scraped the insides of her eyes with barbed hooks, dug her brain from her skull and jerked it carelessly out her nostrils. Had she any tears left, Julia would have cried, and almost did when she thought of how these same horrors had been wrought two-fold to her beautiful child. Horrors suffered at the hands of the devil...

    A small group had begun to gather at the display. People were always caught the same. It took them a long time to notice the plaque beside the case. Julia watched their faces go from sheer disbelief to revulsion, and then, finally, to looking as if they might cry. That is, the good people. The people with a heart, those who could understand.

    It always played out the same. First the sunlight, the awful recollections, then the doors would open, and in would come the people. The eyes would pan over the glass, at the horrors behind, unaware of the horror inside the beast in the glass case. Then someone would notice the plaque, read the enigmatic words on its surface (Julia herself had never read the plaque) and wander away. After a few of these groups had filtered passed, on to see the Giant's Bones, or the skeleton of someone called "The Elephant Man", the guided tours would begin.

    The Tour Guides all wore the same outfit: Maroon vest and pants, periwinkle blue button-up shirts, and shiny black shoes. The men always had their hair parted down the middle, and the women always wore their hair tied back in tight pony-tails. On their "smoke breaks", Julia could see some of the girls sucking on the ends of their pony-tails. She wished she could suck on her hair like they did, but Julia's hair had never grown very long. Of course, her beard had grown quite long, as had the hair covering the rest of her body. But what Julia had always really wished for was long, blonde flowing hair. Hair to make the men gasp. Hair that men would want to run their fingers gently through.

    A short white girl with long brown hair approached the glass case. Julia could tell by her maroon vest, and the long tail of people trailing idly behind her, that she was a tour guide.

    "This," the girl began in high, clipped tones. "Is Julia Pastrana, one of our star attractions. In her lifetime, Julia was known by many names, such as 'Darwin's Missing Link', 'The Nondescript', and even 'The Bear Woman'. Though her true claim to fame, in her lifetime, was her stint throughout America under the banner 'The Ugliest Woman In The World'.

    "Julia most likely suffered from a rare disorder known as Hypertrichosis, an excess of body and facial hair. Though, what separates Julia from the ranks of other famous sufferers of the disorder, such as the 'Dog-Faced Boys', Jo-Jo and Lionel, is that Julia also suffered from a rather severe facial deformity.

    "In addition to excessive hairiness over her body – predominately in the face – Julia also possessed a jutting jaw and swollen gums, giving her ape-like features. Her brow is furrowed, giving her eyes a Neanderthal effect. Though, in spite of all of this, Julia's body is rather daintily proportioned. She possessed great poise, was well developed, and had a buxom four and a half foot figure..."

    The girl went on and on, but Julia had stopped listening. She had trained herself, through years of suffering through the tours, to block everything out and focus on some far away point. She knew the story, her story, too well. Had heard it too many times.

    First, she rose to fame in the sideshow circuit. Yes, yes. Then, she had met and Married Lent, whom had her displayed at every sideshow and Grange hall from California to Timbuktu. Fine, fine, fine. She had become pregnant. Lent was the picture of the proud father. Good, good. But then, sadly, the baby had been born suffering the safe unfortunate disfigurations as its mother. Okay, enough.

    Julia forced the thought from her mind and stared at the far drinking fountain under the distant window. A short, fat man was holding a necklace against his chest with his free hand as he bent to lap up the thin stream of water. She could almost hear the faint "Fllp!Fllp!" of his mouth as he drank. There was another sound, too. Like someone speaking. Listening closely, Julia heard in her own voice, "after the baby, we became very sick. The baby hadn't made it long, and we knew we wouldn't be long after. We could feel it happening. Inside. we could feel our heart breaking..."

    Julia tried to shake the thought from her mind. Maybe the tour guide was almost finished? Or at least on to a happier segment?

    She listened.

    "...her death, Mr. Lent continued his commercial aspirations with Julia. He sold her corpse, as well as the body of his son, to Professor Sukolov of Moscow University. The Professor took the bodies to his Anatomical Institute, dissected them, and then – using unknown embalming techniques – mummified the bodies of Julia and her son. The entire process took six months though the results, while macabre, are impressive. Unlike the mummies of ancient Egypt, these mummified remains retain their color, texture and form and appear very lifelike. Sukolov originally placed the mummies in the anatomical museum of the University where they attracted great crowds.

    "Lent then went on, after a series of legal proceedings, to exhibit the mummies in England. The price was only a shilling and, with the added attraction of the mummified infant, the exhibit was packed with onlookers..."

    "Nothing has changed then," Julia thought cynically. She longed once more, if not for the stage, or the forced privacy of married life (Lent had not allowed her to venture out in daylight), then for the dank basement of the German Medical Museum. They had been kept under a dusty blanket, there. But at least they were left alone. No one had known about them. No one had come to clean the glass. They were lost. To the medical community, to the throngs of onlookers, and to themselves.

    Though, even there they had not been immune to suffering.

    By Julia's recollection they had been in the glass case for fifty years. In fact, it had been almost eighty. She and the baby had been happy in the basement (which was actually a tower outside of Oslo. Julia had entered the building under the dusty blanket, after an exhibition for party members of the Third Reich, and had a difficult time discerning up from down. So, naturally, she had assumed they had been thrown in the basement.), completely unaware of the rumors outside of an "ape-creature" haunting the tower. Teenagers had broken in one night, to face the creature, and when they pulled back the dusty blanket they had run screaming from the building. Children again, in their fear.

    The tour was over now, and the people were shuffling awkwardly behind the young girl with the pretty brown hair. On to the next exhibit. Julia sometimes wondered what the next exhibit might be: a glass case containing shelves of shrunken heads, or perhaps the whispered-about thing known as the "Fiji Mermaid"?

    She could not turn her head to look. If she could turn her head, she would turn to gaze upon her baby. He was so quiet. So very quiet. It was not right for a baby to be cooped up like this. Not always. Especially not young boys. Boys needed the open air. Boys needed a bit of recklessness bred into them.

    Of course, he had gotten out...once.

    It had taken years to plan. Years for the two of them to gather enough strength. And even then it had not seemed possible.

    Even now, thinking back on it, it did not seem real. Julia was no fool. She knew the reality of the situation. She knew full well that she and the baby were...

    But, it had happened.

    One night, years ago.

    They had moved.

    Julia had used the baby's hanging branch to carefully break a small hole in the glass. She had then pried her fingers into the hole and pulled. That was the main and most important thing: the glass had to break in.

    It had to look as if the glass had been broken from the outside.

    After she broke the glass, she carefully set the baby down on the dirty watchtower floor. At first, he simply stood still, unsure of what to do. Then, awkwardly, he began straightening and folding his arms and legs. All the while a wide, happy smile slowly forming at the edge of his lips.

    Julia bent down and whispered in his ear, "Go, baby. It's okay!" He let out a wild whoop and raced for the door in quick, uneasy steps. At the door, he turned briefly once more, whooped again,and was gone.

    Julia spent the rest of the evening knocking over chairs, writing on walls; making it look as if teenagers had broken in and stole the child. As the sun began to rise, she stepped carefully over the broken glass and resumed her position in the case.

    The sun rose and set twice more before the man came in carrying her child. He looked awful, partially eaten by rats, missing an arm and jawbone, but there was something new to him also. He was still smiling.

    It had taken the man several days to rebuild the child, and he had to order a new case, but in the end the child was returned to its place beside its mother. A heavier lock was put on the door of the tower, and a night watchman was brought in to look after the place; but Julia was happy.

    She knew. They had moved. It had taken years of planning, years of saving up energy, but they had moved.

    It was possible.

    It could be done.

    Even now she could feel reserves of stored energy building up in her fingers. And next time, they wouldn't find them. Next time she would not stay behind. They would walk out together, hand in hand, leaving behind the glass case, the tour guides; leaving behind over a hundred years of bad memories.

    Nothing would stop them. Not Lent, not anything. For the first time since she was a child Julia felt sure of herself, sure of what she could do, sure of the life she and her child would still someday have. The life this world owed them both. If we are to be denied the grave, she thought triumphantly, wiggling her fingers. Then we shall be given life! A real life! The life we deserve!

    While Julia thought this, the tours ended, the lights dimmed, and night fell around her like a warm, dusty blanket.

    Julia smiled.

    As if sensing his mother's joy, the baby cooed.

About the author: Dustin Reade used to live in Prosser, Washington, where he dug graves, and worked the "elephant ear" booth for the local carnival. He then began traveling all over the place, picking up stories here and there. He now lives in Port Angeles, Washington, where he writes constantly, plays with his daughter, and listens to the rain. He is a devout Atheist.